Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Danica Patrick takes unusual route to Daytona 500 starting grid

It wasn’t easy, but Danica Patrick has a guaranteed starting spot in this year’s Daytona 500 before Speedweeks even begin.

Patrick’s owner, Tony Stewart, worked out a complicated deal with Tommy Baldwin Racing that will allow Patrick’s #10 car to use last year’s owner’s points for Baldwin’s #36 car.

But, Patrick will technically share her ride for the length of the season with David Reutimann. Since Patrick will only compete in 10 Sprint Cup Series races in 2012, the deal between Stewart and Baldwin allows Reutimann to run the other 26 races.

This is a great deal for Patrick and her Stewart-Haas Racing team. Patrick is guaranteed to race in the 500 and won’t have to put up with the incredible spotlight she would’ve been under during Speedweeks as she tried to qualify for the race.

The situation also works out pretty well for Tommy Baldwin Racing. Patrick will run under the TBR name, so that organization will receive the owner points for all 36 races the #10 car runs. Since this is almost certainly a one-year deal, TBR will have a guaranteed spot if it wants to bring back the #36 car in 2013.

Although everything appears to have worked out for those two organizations, this deal did little to help Ruetimann or his teammate Dave Blaney, who will now have to race his way into the 500 field.

Unfortunately, NASCAR’s rules facilitate these problems.

Those who hate the top-35 rule will only scream louder in the wake of this announcement, and they have a legitimate reason.

The top 35 cars in owner points from the previous season are guaranteed starting spots for the first five races of the following season. The rule is designed to protect big-time teams from missing a race if they don’t qualify well.

However, the consequences of that goal reverberate in strange directions each offseason. Too many teams shut down and too many new ones are born each year for the top-35 rule to be effective.

In the past, teams have purchased owners points from teams that shut down. Well, NASCAR outlawed that and in turn created a system where teams have to be really creative, as Stewart was in this instance, to find a way to assure their new teams will have a guaranteed spot in the first five races of the season.

Many people will say NASCAR should abolish the top-35 rule. That’s fine, but it’s not going to happen. There is way too much money invested into the top teams in the sport to risk having one of them miss a race.

There isn’t an easy answer for this problem, but it is something NASCAR needs to seriously review. The sanctioning body has responded to issues in the sport very well in the past few years, but this one might be more difficult.

First, most people will only care about this issue during Speedweeks and then forget about it until the season starts again next year. Others will maybe care for the first five races, but as the season goes on the top-35 rule usually only affects the small, minimally sponsored teams that don’t factor into the finish of a race anyway.

Maybe this is just a necessary evil in the sport, but there is something wrong when a former race winner has to share his ride with a rookie just because of sponsorship dollars.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Finally, a NASCAR season without major changes

After years and years of changing nearly every aspect of the sport, NASCAR believes the 2011 season went well enough that everything will be pretty much the same for 2012.

Thankfully, during this year’s preseason media tour NASCAR officials didn’t announce any big changes to the points system or schedule, and it didn’t any issue mandates on how drivers should act.

Sure, the cars will run new electronic fuel injection engines, but that likely won’t create a noticeable difference in the racing.

Beyond that, the cars, points system, schedule and rules will be nearly exactly the same as last season, and that is a very good thing.

NASCAR has always been a sport that embraces change, but it really kicked the changes into high gear during the last decade.

Since 2000, the sport has brought in new tracks while eliminating others from the schedule, it has a different car model, a playoff format, new title sponsors in all three national touring series and a new points system, just to name a few.

Back when NASCAR started to make all of these changes, the sport was still growing in popularity and gaining more and more fans each year. Much of the talk at the time was how to make changes to the sport to continue to bring in new fans.

So, NASCAR dove in head first to making changes to spice up the sport. The competition changes began with the introduction of the Chase format in 2004 and ended with the double-file restarts that began in mid-2009.

In between, rules such as the Lucky Dog, wave-arounds and green-white-checkered finishes crept into the sport.

Now, not all of those changes are bad, and the sport will still be exciting and fun to watch regardless of the rules NASCAR puts together. The biggest problem with the changes was the amount of changes that happened in a relatively short period of time.

During that time, some fans simply became fatigued from all of the changes and decided to throw their hands up and skip out completely. It would likely take several races for a fan from 10 years ago to understand how the sport works these days.

It is difficult in any sport to build a fan base when the sport changes so much.

Yes, some fans go to races just for the experience of watching 43 racecars charge around the track at the same time, but a lot of fans have a passion for the sport that goes deeper than the simple sights and sounds of a race.

They want to understand what is happening in all aspects of the sport, from the drivers personalities to how the cars work to how teams prepare for a race, as well as the strategy involved throughout the event.

Unfortunately, the changes of the past decade have made it difficult for even the most die-hard fans to keep up.

The sport would likely be just fine if many of these changes had never been made. The sport survived for 50 or so years before everything changed, and it would have survived without them. There will always be a market for stock car racing, even though the size of that market could surely be debated for years.

NASCAR may have made more money during the 2000’s in part because of some of its changes, but it also shook up the fan base.

The only changes that absolutely had to be made were the introduction of the SAFER barriers at all tracks and the Car of Tomorrow. As much as people hated the look of the car, it has saved several drivers from serious injuries or worse. Plus, NASCAR will fix the ugly problem next year with the new 2013 car models.

For those who liked last season, get ready for what NASCAR hopes is more of the same.

For many, just having the same rules for two consecutive years will be a welcome experience.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Miss the Hall of Fame inductions? Yeah, so did everybody

The NASCAR Hall of Fame enshrined five new inductees Friday evening, but hardly anybody actually saw it happen.

That’s because SPEED was preoccupied with the Barrett-Jackson car auctions Friday night and decided to put the Hall of Fame inductions on tape delay. That means the only people actually able to see the ceremonies live were the people actually in attendance.

What makes the situation worse is the inductions are not only on tape delay, but SPEED decided to not show the ceremonies until 6 p.m. ET Sunday, a full two days after the actual event and right in the middle of the NFL Championship games. Are you kidding me?

I understand television is a business, and SPEED makes money by showing the Barrett-Jackson auctions, but come on. This is the event where the legends of NASCAR are honored, and it’s going to be shown on a two-day tape delay.

SPEED will showcase another 11 hours of the Barrett-Jackson car auctions Saturday and maybe programming contracts didn’t allow that to change, but the audience Saturday morning would even likely be larger than what SPEED will get with the Sunday afternoon timeslot.

One of the supposed problems with NASCAR is that the Chase coincides with the start of the NFL season, which hurts the television ratings during the most important time of the NASCAR season.

Now SPEED decided to once again go head-to-head with the NFL in late January, as well. There is no doubt the induction ceremonies will get mercilessly spanked in the television ratings. Even the most diehard NASCAR fans will find it tough to skip football to watch a ceremony.

I guess I thought NASCAR had outgrown the days when its events didn’t make live television. Instead, this weekend NASCAR returned to the ABC Wide World of Sports days when snippets of the races were the only NASCAR racing fans got to see on a given weekend.

I understand NASCAR wanted to make the Hall of Fame inductions part of a preseason “NASCAR Acceleration” weekend to get fans in the Charlotte area pumped up for the season, but not airing the induction ceremonies live flies in the face of NASCAR’s overriding goal for the last decade: expand its fan base.

If this was how NASCAR approached its decisions, we’d probably still have two races at Rockingham and Darlington and would not have races in Chicago or Kansas.

The Hall of Fame induction ceremonies are also an evening that celebrates the history of the sport, and it is important for fans to either learn about that history, or relive the excitement of those days. That’s what the Hall of Fame is all about.

SPEED does a great job with the Hall of Fame biographies on each inductee, but there were a ton of programs the network could have shown this weekend. Shoot, last weekend it spent 21 hours showing mostly singe car testing runs at Daytona.

NASCAR doesn’t own SPEED and therefore has little control of how the network chooses to cover the sport. However, SPEED, which has branded itself the official network of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, should have found a better way to handle the Hall of Fame’s biggest event.

Hopefully inductees Dale Inman, Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, Glen Wood and the family of Richie Evans had one of the best evenings of their lives. Too bad hardly any NASCAR fans were able to watch the legends of their favorite sport honored.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

NASCAR gets close to Daytona package during test, but won’t do away with two-car draft

NASCAR and the Sprint Cup Series teams got down to business for three days this week to hammer out what style of restrictor-plate racing we will see this year.

Teams hit the high banks Thursday at Daytona International Speedway and went straight to the now-common two-car draft. Speeds reached 202 mph, and it looked a lot like what we have seen the past couple of years.

NASCAR came back Friday with a larger restrictor plate and more rules designed to make it tougher to do the two-car draft. Speeds reached 206 mph during two-car drafting runs with the larger plate, but we also finally saw a session of three-wide pack racing.

As Saturday rolled around, NASCAR brought back the smaller restrictor plate and a few more rules related to air flow into the engine. The top speeds in the two-car draft reached 201 mph, but it looked like drivers had a difficult time staying hooked together for multiple laps.

Before the test started, everybody talked about how NASCAR wanted to eliminate the two-car drafts and bring back the huge packs. Well, it turns out the leaders at NASCAR don’t want to completely eliminate the two-car draft, but rather make it difficult enough so drivers only use it sparingly.

The sport got closer to a workable rules package for Speedweeks, but it could have gotten closer to taking away the two-car draft.

Almost every team will bring back a car for Speedweeks in February that is faster, has more-efficient cooling and all of the tricks teams add to the cars they are actually going to race. The teams certainly gained a lot of data this week, but a lot of that goes into making the Speedweeks cars better, not necessarily making the test car better.

All of that means the sport could still face issues about the style of racing during Speedweeks. The sport went about as far as it could on the cooling-system restrictions, but if teams come back with better cars for Speedweeks, they might still be able to do the two-car draft for at least five laps without switching.

Fans have voiced their displeasure with the two-car draft and while it does make for boring practice sessions, it isn’t going to go away completely.

One of the ideas some drivers took to NASCAR was to move the grill opening more to the left on the front of the car. That would make it nearly impossible to push another car without blowing the engine because the pushing car currently has to hang out to the right to get air to the engine.

With the grill on the left side of the car, the pushing driver wouldn’t be able to get air to the opening and would instead have to lay off the bumper.

That was probably an impractical change to make in the middle of a test, but it is something the sanctioning body could look at if it truly wanted to do away with the two-car draft.

But it doesn’t.

NASCAR Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton said on the SPEED broadcast that NASCAR wants a combination of pack racing and two-car pushing. That’s all well and good, but if teams come back to Daytona with better cars they might be able to run the two-car draft enough to not create a pack.

Hopefully NASCAR has enough of the same information the teams have to create a rules package that will accommodate any changes based on any improvements teams might make between now and Speedweeks.

As always, the Budweiser Shootout will be the race that tells us what kind of racing we will have during Speedweeks. If it’s more of the two-car draft, expect some radical last-minute rule changes.

That part, at least, wouldn’t be much different than most Februarys at Daytona.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Daytona testing helps kick off anticipation for NASCAR season

We are technically only about halfway through the NASCAR offseason, but the days of hearing strictly about off-track news are about over.

NASCAR teams will head to Florida this week to the greatest racetrack of them all in Daytona Beach and start testing for the fast-approaching Speedweeks.

Gosh, it is going to be nice to see cars back on the track. Plus, the teams will be doing more than just logging laps during the three-day test session that begins Thursday.

NASCAR made several rule changes after the season designed to change the style of restrictor-plate racing back to the large packs instead of the two-car drafts.

It will be interesting to see if those changes have much of an effect on the style of racing. NASCAR's similar attempts last year didn’t do much to break up the two-car drafts.

More than anything, it will just be nice to know that the dark, quiet winter is almost over.

Sure, it’s still early January, but the NASCAR action slowly picks up as we move closer and closer to Speedweeks in mid-February.

The Daytona test will run from Thursday to Saturday with Preseason Thunder events where fans can meet drivers and get an early feel for the changes that happened during the offseason.

The following week is NASCAR Acceleration weekend in Charlotte that will culminate with the NASCAR Hall of Fame inductions for 2012.

NASCAR used to hold the Hall of Fame inductions during the week between the All-Star Race and the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte, but now it will help fill the void between the start of the year and the start of the season.

Cars will be back on the track at Daytona the weekend after the Hall of Fame inductions with the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona. While this isn’t a NASCAR event, several NASCAR drivers run the race and it is a full day of auto racing. That in itself is therapeutic.

The weeks between the 24-hour race and the Daytona 500 will be filled with the NASCAR media tour that tries to set some storylines for the upcoming season and then it is time to get after it with the big cars on the big track.

All of a sudden the season will be in full swing and NASCAR fans will once again long for the weekends so they can watch the practices sessions, qualifying and the race on Sunday.

We might still be more than 40 days from the official start of the season, but those days will be filled with on-track action, big NASCAR events and the wonderful anticipation of another full season of auto racing.

Welcome back, everybody.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Many NASCAR teams in worse sponsorship situation than when economy collapsed in 2008

NASCAR teams entered the 2009 season with a bleak outlook in financial and sponsorship terms, but the outlook for this season doesn’t look any better.

In fact, it might be worse.

As the 2008 NASCAR season came to a close, the United States economy was on the verge of disaster, and its struggles quickly affected NASCAR teams.

Many teams had to lay off large parts of their staff, and the Sprint Cup Series went from having nearly 43 fully funded teams to questions about whether enough cars would show up on a race weekend to fill the field.

It turned out that every race still had a full field, but more and more teams showed up to run just the first few laps in a race and then head home while collecting the prize money. Even then, cars with mostly full sponsorship packages filled the top 35 guaranteed spots in a race.

Now cars that finished last season in the Chase might not even have full sponsorship for the 2012 season. Matt Kenseth, who finished fourth in the points standings last year, has sponsorship lined up for less than half of the season so far.

Several teams are still looking to put together a sponsorship package to fund the entire season, and other teams have completely shut down.

Red Bull Racing has fielded two cars since 2008, but it folded at the end of the 2011 season for financial reasons. TRG Motorsports won’t return in 2012 after fielding one full-time car for the past three seasons, and Front Row Motorsports, has yet to announce its plans for the upcoming season.

In addition, some of the big-time teams are cutting back, as well. Roush-Fenway Racing will run Nationwide Series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in the #6 car for the Daytona 500, but it currently doesn’t have any sponsorship for the race, and the #6 car could very well be shut down for the remainder of the season.

The #33 driven by Clint Bowyer for the past three seasons will cease to exist as Bowyer moves to the #15 car for Michael Waltrip Racing. Richard Petty Motorsports recently tabbed Aric Almirola to drive the #43 car, but it doesn’t have any sponsorship as of yet. Even Tommy Baldwin Racing’s two cars currently don’t have a sponsor.

All of these changes could lead to a season where less than 30 teams have sponsorship to run the entire schedule.

Last season 30 teams ran all 36 races. A few others attempted to run every race and didn’t qualify on time. However, this season there could be cars in the top 35 in the points standings that won’t have the money to show up at the track.

TV ratings improved in the 2011 season, and attendance numbers started to stabilize after several years of freefall. At least it appears fan interest in the sport has stabalized, if not started to grow once again.

Hopefully this is rock bottom and money will start flowing back into the sport throughout the 2012 season and years beyond. But, the current situation might be the toughest stretch NASCAR teams have ever faced.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

NASCAR offseason picks up again as Almirola gets rare second chance

The holidays passed and the NASCAR offseason picked up right where it left off with two more driver signings and another team shutting down.

David Reutimann landed with Tommy Baldwin Racing for the 2012 season, TRG Motorsports couldn’t find a driver or sponsor and will cease to exist, and Aric Almirola jumped back into the Spring Cup Series with the #43 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford.

It’s good to see Reutimann get a ride after being fired very late in the season from the #00 Michael Waltrip Racing team and it’s not good to see another team leave the sport, but the biggest winner of the week is Almirola.

Sure, the #43 car currently doesn’t have a sponsor and could struggle to finish in the top 20 in the points standings next year, but at least he will race in the Cup series once again.

Almirola’s first shot in a Cup ride came in 2007 when he ran six races in the #01 U.S. Army car that he shared with Mark Martin. His best finish was 26th.

The next year he doubled his number of races as he and Martin again split duties to fill the empty #8 seat left by Dale Earnhardt Jr. when he went to Hendrick Motorsports. Almirola did record a top 10 with an eighth-place finish at Bristol in the spring that season.

Since then he bounced around to several different teams and ended up only racing in the Nationwide Series in 2011. He was successful at that level, however, and finished fourth in the points standings while driving the #88 JR Motorports car.

Regardless of his results, Almirola should feel like the luckiest guy in the sport. Not many drivers get a second chance at the Cup level, especially with a top-20 team.

While Almirola drives on Sundays, former Cup drivers such as Reed Sorenson and Elliot Sadler will likely remain in the Nationwide Series and only drive on Saturdays. Others such as David Ragan and Brian Vickers are also on the market and still don’t have a ride lined up.

Since Almirola got the job, the attention will now turn to how successful he can be in that car. Remember, the #43 car isn’t in the NASCAR elite anymore, and it hasn’t been for nearly two decades. Although the car has 198 victories, it hasn’t really come close to reaching Victory Lane since 1999 when John Andretti won at Martinsville.

A.J. Allmendinger put together the best season the #43 car has had since Bobby Labonte finished 18th in the points standings in 2007. Allmendinger finished 15th in the points standings in 2011 and 19th in 2010. Before that, the #43 hadn’t finished in the top 20 in points since Andretti’s year in 1999.

Overall, there probably shouldn’t be very high expectations for the #43 car in 2012. The vicious cycle between mediocre runs and horrible runs could easily continue for that team this season, especially if it has trouble finding sponsorship.

It’s an unfortunate situation because the organization just came off of its best season with two cars in the top 20 in the points standings, and now it is back to the same struggles it dealt with the previous season when it almost went bankrupt.

Maybe we’re overstating the negative of this situation. Maybe the organization has potential sponsors about ready to sign on and Almirola will follow in the footsteps of the five first-time winners of 2011 and burst back onto the scene.

In any case, Almirola has a Cup ride, and that’s more than a lot of other Cup-winning drivers can say at this point.